How Did We Get Here?

163 years of The Atlantic’s writing on race and racism in America

A photo collage of civil-rights moments in American history
Paul Spella / The Atlantic

America recently passed the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first captive Africans brought to what would become the United States. September 2019 was chosen as an imperfect but significant date to mark the start of American slavery and the systems of inequality perpetuated by the nation’s original sin.

For 163 years, The Atlantic has discussed, argued, and analyzed America, its lofty ideals and the reality that often falls short of them. This magazine was founded, in part, to argue in favor of abolition, and has been a home for black voices such as Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., W. E. B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington—each calling upon the country to realize its promise of freedom and equity for all its citizens.

Amid a pandemic that is disproportionately killing brown and black people and an economic recession disproportionately devastating the finances of people of color, a major moment of racial reckoning has arisen after yet another series of police murders of black Americans—the latest in a generations-old trend of disproportionate killing and violence against black communities by those sworn to serve and protect.

There have been protests, looting, and more police violence. Major companies and individuals are being called to account for discrimination, leaders in the public and private sectors are losing their jobs for failing communities of color, and many Americans are seeking new ways to support the movement toward racial equity. Confronting the continued realities of racism and its steep cost is painful and complex, and forces a question: How did it come to this?

Understanding the present moment requires grappling with a history stained by racial inequity, violence, and the constant fight for forward progress. In a century and a half of writing stories about race in America, The Atlantic has published works that have improved the broad understanding of injustice in America, and also works that furthered ideas and theories that ultimately were proved wrong or harmful. To comprehend the current state of the country, we must consider the aftereffects of both categories. We must also take into account the fact that these stories, in aggregate, are overwhelmingly written by men.

The following reader encompasses writing on race and racism that spans The Atlantic’s lifetime—from our founding, in 1857, to the present day. In it you’ll find historical works from the archive, as well as more recent stories that provide critical analysis to contextualize the importance of a given event, policy, or era.

We hope that our readers can use this compendium for their own education—to digest more fully the difficult but rich history of this country—and to spur deeper conversations. Understanding race in America is an essential starting point for understanding America itself, and what it might become. As Alice Walker said in a 2012 interview published in The Atlantic’s pages, “America is not nearly done. We're only in the beginning. Who knows who we will be?”

Emancipated black Americans in the South, shortly after the Civil War (Getty)

Calls for Abolition, Civil War, Emancipation

Modern analysis:

A chain gang in 1903 (Getty)

Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Segregation

Modern analysis:

A segregated drinking fountain in North Carolina (Getty)

Civil Rights

Modern analysis:

Students in a classroom after the second day of a busing program to desegregate Boston, MA schools  (Ed Jenner / The Boston Globe / Getty)

Policing, Incarceration, Disinvestment

Modern analysis:

Protests in Charlotte, NC after a police shooting, 2016 (Sean Rayford / Getty)

Economic Inequality, Police Violence, COVID-19

Secretary of the Smithsonian Lonnie Bunch spoke with Atlantic staff writer Adam Serwer about this moment in history, and how protests can influence policy and create a more equitable America.

Photo-illustration images: PhotoQuest; Drew Angerer; Scott Olson; Thearon W. Henderson; U.S. Marine Corps / The LIFE Picture Collection; Robert Abbott Sengstacke; Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times; Bev Grant; Library of Congress / Getty